A worker at an immigrant detention center has tested positive for coronavirus, and unless the federal government takes immediate steps to contain it, disaster could follow. The virus will spread rapidly throughout these facilities, afflicting not only the detainees, but the guards, medical workers, attorneys and anyone who comes in contact with them.
Enforcement agencies could implement several immediate fixes to contain the pandemic that should not trigger ideological grievances. But in undertaking measures to stop the spread, conservatives should take note of the underlying issue: the abysmal conditions of these facilities.
Immigrant detention centers are virtual breeding grounds for an infectious disease. They are severely overcrowded, having increased in population by about 67 percent from the previous administration to the current one. The large number of individuals coming in constant contact with one another represents a looming catastrophe. Certain remedies are simply non-partisan common sense. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) should halt interfacility transfers; immediately test the current ICE population and all new incoming detainees and staff; increase provisions for proper hygiene, including for hand washing and cleaning; and limit new immigration arrests to the highest public safety threats (which the administration is already doing).
But the danger doesn’t just lie in the large number of individuals inhabiting the same, constrained area. Exacerbating this issue is that these individuals live in appalling conditions, with poor hygiene and little to no access to medical assessments and treatment.
Before this pandemic reached the United States, a U.S. district judge ruled the conditions at the eight Border Patrol stations were “presumptively punitive and violate the Constitution.” The ruling followed a week-long trial in which attorneys representing migrants argued that the agency holds immigrants in squalid and freezing cells, called “hieleras” or “iceboxes,” that are so overcrowded that people sleep in the bathroom stalls, with their heads near the toilet. Individuals sleep in fully-lit cells on concrete floors, suffer from poor hygiene and lack access to quality medical assessments and/or treatment. An expert in prisons said that the conditions in Border Patrol’s stations are “much more severe than anything I’ve seen in any jail.”
Similar problems plague ICE centers. Nearly two-hundred people have died in ICE facilities since 2004, and recent studies from medical professionals suggest approximately half of all deaths are attributable to medical negligence. Independent inspectors have criticized the agency’s medical facilities, detainees have mounted hunger strikes to protest medical neglect and inadequate resources, and mismanagement has resulted in outbreaks of flu, mumps, chicken pox and tuberculosis in recent years.
The political left has taken hold of this issue not too long ago, so it may seem peculiar to read calls for reform from a conservative organization such as the R St. Institute. But reforming these facilities is a natural extension of the prison reform work spearheaded by many on the political right. As a researcher at a conservative think tank, I have coordinated a series of prison tours with center-right criminal justice partners, as well as partners across the political spectrum. We have witnessed firsthand the rotten conditions in many facilities and the near complete absence of human dignity.
To deprive migrants of basic human dignity violates all conservative ideals. Conservatives have worked to restore human dignity as a part of prison reform, which the president and multiple Republican governors have endorsed and signed into law. This principle should especially apply to immigrant detention centers, where individuals are held on civil charges and are not being charged with or convicted of a crime.
Moreover, keeping individuals in squalid detention conditions increases the likelihood that they rely on public services or reenter the system after being released. These outcomes should alarm anyone, regardless of ideological persuasion.
We have also observed the large number of individuals who could be safely released without incurring the massive taxpayer cost of detention. Annually, ICE spends $260 million on healthcare alone, and the return on investment for taxpayers has been clearly lacking. Particularly during this crisis, the agency should release low-risk detainees who are immunocompromised or elderly, and have connections in the community where they should be ordered to self-quarantine. These individuals could be released on electronic monitoring or assigned a caseworker to ensure they do not flee.
ICE has confirmed the availability of airborne infection isolation rooms but there simply aren’t enough of these rooms to contain the spread. Targeted release is crucial not only to protect lives during this pandemic, but should be expanded after its resolution.
The public health and safety benefits far outweigh any concerns related to release. Over half of the detained immigrants have no criminal record and are categorized by ICE as representing “no threat.” Electronic monitoring and other forms of parole could save taxpayers billions of dollars, protect the dignity of immigrants, and reserve scarce detention space for more pressing public safety threats.
The novel coronavirus has revealed the glaring government failure that is the immigrant detention apparatus. Similar to failed prisons and jails, these facilities are fiscally wasteful, make communities less safe, and trample on constitutional liberties. Lawmakers should seize the opportunity to reform these facilities not only to contain the current crisis, but to prevent future ones.